Ben Okri, 57, is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Okri is an accomplished writer and he's considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions and has been compared favourably to authors such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.
25 years after his Man Booker-winning novel was first published, the talented author reflects on what motivated the magic 'The Famished Road' with THE GUARDIAN.
The Famished Road is fed by the dreams of literature. I devoured the world, through art, politics, literature, films and music, in order to find the elixir of its tone. Then it became a perpetual story into which flowed the great seas of African dreams, myths and fables of the world, known and unknown. I made up stories in the matrix of the ancestral mode. Many people read these stories and assume they belong to the oral tradition, but I had always believed that it is an artist’s function to enrich the oral tradition with stories of our own, inventions of our own, inspired by the tales we heard in the moonlight, sitting in a circle. But even in that the tone is the thing.
But it was as a child that I began the book, with innocence and simplicity of heart. With the rich history of literature turning in my mind, I would disappear into the writing of the novel as into a dream. It was as if I sensed there was a book there, in the archetypal margins of the numinous world that existed already in the spirit realm; my task was to bring it here, as one lowering intact a perfect vision.
The novel was written to give myself reasons to live. Often the wonder of living fades from us, obscured by a thousand things. I wanted to look at life afresh and anew and I sought a story that would give me the right vantage point.
It is also meant to be a humorous book – from the perspective of the spirits, the deeds and furies of men are tinged with absurdity. Poverty compelled me to break off writing the novel in order to shape another, different book which would help keep me alive. This was a book of short stories and it forced compression on me. The stories my mother told me were elliptical and strange, and the philosophies of my father, steeped in the ancient African world that was older and stranger than the Greek myths, hovered above me in the little room where I wrote. There was a lake I walked round every day, in a ritual that magnetised my spirit.
The novel was drawn from a half-glimpsed world, and it was fading fast from reality. In that sense the novel is a sort of elegy. Not the things we saw, but the things in between – the myths in between, the tone in between – were the key to its mysteries.
Time, which decays everything else, gives literature a strange new life. As we diminish in time, works of literature grow. I hope that time has been kind to The Famished Road.
Check out the edited extract of the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Famished Road
"IN THE BEGINNING there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn.We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins.There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.